China launches new online portal for petitioners

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Chinese petitioners appeal to central authorities for help - but are often seen as an embarrassment

China has started a new online platform to accept petitions from its citizens.

Officials say the website, which was launched by the State Bureau of Letters and Calls on Monday, will help "broaden the channels" for public opinion.

However, some potential users expressed fears that the website would be used to expose petitioners.

Chinese microblog users also raised questions about the effectiveness of the site after it reportedly crashed on its first day.

In China millions of people petition government offices every year, in a tradition that dates back to imperial times when the emperors would listen to the complaints of common people.

But these petitioners - whose grievances range from land disputes to employment violations to unsolved crimes - are often seen as an embarrassment to local officials, with some intercepted and detained illegally.

The State Bureau has accepted online complaints on agricultural issues, social welfare and construction before now. However, it says it will now accept complaints on all types of issues online.

The bureau chief, Shu Xiaoqin, said the department would take all online comments and complaints seriously, so that "all issues would be settled, all cases would receive a reply".

The move was "an effort to improve the bureau's credibility" and "continue to broaden the channels through which public opinion could be expressed," she was quoted in Chinese media reports as saying.

'Fishing exercise'

However, the site requires users to register their details, including their real name, ID or passport number, home address and telephone numbers, leading some to fear that petitioners could face retribution from local officials.

"Would you dare submit a petition on this website?" Ma Juncao wrote on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblog similar to Twitter. "Opening up online reporting is a good thing, but what's the point of asking for people's address? Maybe so they can retaliate against you."

Another user, Tears in Snow, described the website as a "fishing" exercise.

Many Chinese microblog users also expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of the site, after reports it crashed on its first day due to the high volume of visitors.

"The state bureau allows online complaints... and then the website crashed," Sina Weibo user Maxims and Smart Words said.

"It looks like there are a lot of grievances from citizens!" OscarUI, another user, wrote.

Online users also said they noticed errors on the site, which reportedly listed Monday's date as "1 July 19113", and were unhappy that the portal was only compatible with the Internet Explorer browser.

"It feels like the State Bureau weren't sincere enough when they made this site," user i Gao Haobo wrote on Sina Weibo.

"People may feel hopeful [when they learn about the new portal], but when you see the date of the website it's obvious that you're just being conned," user Hai Lan Lan said.

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